Friday, August 22, 2008
Meet the Mughals
Michael H. Hodges / The Detroit News
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
"The Private World of India's Mughal Emperors" (the national tour is entitled, "Muraqqa': Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Libray, Dublin"), which opens at the Detroit Institute of Arts on Saturday, offers a visually stunning show of miniature paintings and exquisite calligraphy that illuminate royal life in a Muslim-ruled, ethnically diverse India. It's an intriguing example of tolerant governance in an empire crowded with competing claims and religions.
Strangely familiar and exotic by turns, these 87 works on paper -- mostly culled from the 17th-century equivalent of a royal photo album -- were created during a Mughal golden age, the 100-year reign of three artistically enlightened rulers who governed a kingdom reaching from the Himalayas deep into the Indian subcontinent.
The artistic tradition created under these monarchs is striking in its elegance and understatement, both of which look as fetching to modern eyes as they likely did in the 1600s.
The three rulers behind all this were Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, but if that all strikes you as so much Greek, in point of fact you're dimly aware of at least one of them -- Shah Jahan, whose reign ended in 1666, is the guy behind the construction of India's luminous Taj Mahal.
These album pages on display -- with their finely wrought borders punctuated by birds or kneeling courtiers -- served a number of purposes, many of them deadly serious and dynastic.
But at least one intent is instantly recognizable to modern audiences -- these albums were meant to be passed from hand to hand, for enjoyment and to stir sentimental remembrance.
Indeed, in a poignant example of the latter, late in life Shah Jahan commissioned a "memory book" with images of his boyhood friends as youngsters, though many had been dead for years -- an aging monarch's nostalgic indulgence.
Still, as DIA curator of Islamic art Heather Ecker puts it, "Nothing is accidental in these portraits -- everything was organized to underline the majesty and authority of the emperors," descendents of Genghis Kahn who traced their legitimacy to Timur, a king of Persia (modern-day Iran), and the 14th-century conqueror Tamerlane, who restored Kahn's empire.
A bit more history: The Mughals were Sunni Muslims who claimed Persian heritage, and venerated that empire's cultural achievements -- even adopting Persian as the language of their Indian court, and enthusiastically importing Persian artistic traditions.
Thus, the calligraphy on display that looks to unschooled eyes like Arabic, is actually Persian.
Akbar, the first of these artistically inclined emperors, commissioned Persian artists to work with and train local Hindu craftsmen, ultimately generating works that freely mingled Persian, Indian and even European elements.
"Akbar had these very personal ideas about religion, and definitely supported what today we would call a progressive, secular, very open form of Islam," says Debra Diamond, associate curator of South Asian art at the Smithsonian Institution's Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, D.C.
The artistic movement Akbar and his successors oversaw, Diamond adds, invokes a world of "restrained elegance. It's not very blingy. And because of the paintings' small size, there's this intimacy to them."
At the DIA, the word Ecker chooses for Akbar is "genius," but she notes the monarch never learned to read -- historians speculate that he had dyslexia -- which perhaps accounts for the striking output of illuminated manuscripts under his rule.
"Akbar was really the first to establish an artistic atelier" or workshop, Ecker says, "with something like 150 painters. They learned the Persian style, but also incorporated Hindu conventions and images from European paintings and prints that were circulating at the time."
In a surprising sign of cultural cross-fertilization, one album page on display at the DIA is topped by a portrait of Jahangir, right above a painting of Jesus Christ.
Far from suggesting hierarchy or superiority, Ecker says, the inscription links the Mughal emperor to Christ with the designation "O helper of the poor."
Not that the Indian subcontinent in these years was some groovy, love-your-neighbor universe.
Jahangir also commissioned a painting in which he shoots an arrow through the decapitated head of Malik Ambar -- the Ethiopian ruler of an adjacent Indian kingdom whom Jahangir could never defeat.
Jahangir's thought process in choosing this particular setup is lost to history, but some modern observers speculate that the emperor was simply indulging in wish-fulfillment fantasy.
Other paintings, underlining the cosmopolitan nature of 17th-century India, feature priests and even the Virgin Mary -- who, as Ecker carefully points out, appears in the Koran, so was hardly a "foreign" image to devout Muslims.
The three DIA galleries that house the Mughal exhibit are handsomely hung and painted for the exhibit in strong South Asian hues. The organizers have thoughtfully provided a large square settee in the central room, complete with an upholstered Indian bolster to lean against.
Capitalizing on its new user-friendly spirit, the DIA has produced a series of excellent explanatory panels that highlight key elements, and briefly give the viewer a few insights with which to understand the work.
Even more to the point for close examination of minute calligraphy, the museum has provided magnifying glasses in each gallery.
Alas, after Shah Jahan, the last of the three enlightened emperors, this open-minded approach to empire and art came to a screeching halt with the rise of Awrangzib ("World Seizer"), who grabbed the Mughal throne by murdering all his eligible siblings.
Bad enough that Shah Jahan's successor was, in Ecker's polite term, a "psychopath."
Even worse, he was a puritanical sort with little use for art, apart from poetry -- another reminder, if we needed one, that nothing good lasts forever.
You can reach Michael H. Hodges at (313) 222-6021 or mhodges@detnews.
This exhibition is organized and circulated by
Art Services International,
Support for theThe national tour and catalogue has generously been providedsponsored by
The Annenberg Foundation
The E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation
and an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
His Excellency Michael Collins, Ambassador of Ireland to the United States of America
is Honorary Patron of the exhibition.